That’s a joke. Andrew Garfield is not my spiritual director. Though if you’re reading this, Mr. Garfield, you’re awesome. Love the eyebrows.
But seriously: following an interestingly mixed career that swung (sorry) from The Social Network to The Amazing Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield’s 2016 releases provided me a one-two punch at just the right time. Interviews suggest that he made them right atop one another, too, using new and overlapping skills.
His two characters—Father Sebastião Rodrigues the 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit and Desmond Doss the 20th-century American Seventh-Day Adventist—share almost nothing other than their capacities to be played by the same actor and have problems in Japan. If they met, they wouldn’t be able to converse. They occupy the same religious tradition in only the broadest sense. But within his own spiritual stream, each is a hero of prayer.
Hacksaw Ridge shows Desmond praying both as an everyday activity and in dire straits. He prays continually through his climactic sequence (“Lord, help me get one more.”) After that, the Army’s entire maneuver on Okinawa waits half an hour while he finishes his devotions. (Those things pretty much really happened, too.)
Father Rodrigues prays through much of Silence aloud and alone, when performing the sacraments, and in silent contemplation, including imaginative communion with an icon. The movie’s lack of background score and its meditative pacing, punctuated by segments of disturbing violence, give it a prayerful feel throughout.
And unlike many other Hollywood products, neither Garfield creation is shown up as a hypocrite. Father Rodrigues is tragically mistaken in his colonialism and pride, but he’s sincere. This is unusual in a genre that brought us the delightful Leap of Faith and the outstanding The Apostle, among many, many others. Even a movie like Sister Act finds something ultimately worthwhile in a superficially portrayed religiosity, but Whoopi Goldberg’s Deloris hardly attains inner peace. So I was pleasantly surprised, and in a position to be positively influenced, by Andrew Garfield’s prayer twins.
I came to adulthood during a sort of perfect storm against prayer. Contributing factors included a defensive stance in mainline Protestantism as believers haemorrhaged toward secularism or fundamentalism; an acute scholarly focus on the Historical Jesus as a debunker of a devotional Christ; and the notion that scientific discovery has reduced or marginalized God—this last dating at least from the Enlightenment and practically a cliché by now. Furthermore, I was always in choirs and/or wrapped up in some sort of social justice or just plain social programming—great things in themselves, but tending to squeeze out prayer. You pray in order to get out there and march, or you wait through the prayer to get to the next descant.
My undergraduate education in religion was also superlative but unsupportive of a prayer life. At best, I got the sense that academic religious study demands a postmodern God of no particular attributes, and anything else is intellectually lazy. In that context, prayer is a crutch for the weak, a useless appendage to the strong-minded.
John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, said a mouthful in his 1999 book Why Christianity Must Change or Die:
I have always wanted to be a person of prayer. I have yearned to have that sense of immediate contact with the divine. Yet for longer than I have been willing to admit, even to myself, prayers addressed to an external supreme being have had little or no meaning for me. My first presumption was that this represented the lack of some essential aspect in my own spiritual development and that all I needed to do was to work harder and harder to overcome this deficiency….
“In the course of my life I have read every prayer manual or book on prayer on which I could lay my hands. My personal library has a shelf dedicated to once-beckoning, but now discarded, books on prayer. I created a prayer corner in my study. I equipped it with a prayer desk to remind me that this was a prayer place and so that I could quite literally kneel before God on high. I have organized my intercessions and special intentions with help from various cycles of prayer….I once even printed a cross on my watch face so that every time I glanced to establish the time of day I would be reminded to send a prayer darting heavenward to keep me connected with the God whom I hoped might be an external compass point by which my life would be guided. My great ambition was to be one who lived in a significant awareness of the divine….I really did believe that that discipline and perseverance would lead me to these goals….
“Yet, despite this sometimes frenzied, but at least persistent, effort I could not make prayer, as it has been traditionally understood, have meaning for me. The real reason, I now believe, was not my spiritual ineptitude, but rather that the God to whom I had been taught to pray was in fact fading from my view.”
Spong outlines a God as Ground of Being that can still underwrite a meaningful life, but that is in no way a person and to which there’s no point praying. For awhile I found relief in his formula. You can still do good in an essentially Christian mold without the now-empty prayer requirement.
The problem—and this has only now become clear to me—is that if you critique faith by ejecting prayer, the critique is itself more virtuous than the tattered faith you’re left with. To take two examples: feminism and environmentalism are perfectly compatible with Christianity, but are done just as well or better without it. Why be Christian, with all that baggage, when you can just be a feminist and environmentalist and a generally good person?—maybe a better person than you’d be if you wasted a lot of time bending your brain into churchy platitudes.
I know and admire loads of folks who manage that, including Bishop Spong, an outstanding thinker and writer who I’m honored to have met a couple of times. Yet, at a moment of crisis four months ago, I fell to my knees. (More about that here.) I felt both completely foolish and as though I could do no other. Having jettisoned prayer, then the rest, I set forth again in prayer without even meaning to. And a multitude of things that had looked outdated, wrongheaded, or ludicrous began to fall right into place.
“We only seem to know God by relating to God.” That’s the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr, in Jesus’ Plan for a New World. Christianity is a recipe that turns into dinner only when you prepare the ingredients. Trying to do Christianity without prayer is like serving up the cookbook with a knife and fork.
However they said duh in a) early modern Portuguese or b) 1940s Virginia, that’s what Andrew Garfield’s prayer heroes would say. Desmond Doss is vindicated in Hacksaw Ridge. Father Rodrigues screws things up in Silence. Both their prayer lives, however, show where Bishop Spong and I went subtly astray. He mentions only the kind of prayers “addressed to an external supreme being,” kneeling “before God on high,” “send[ing] a prayer darting heavenward” to “an external compass point.”
When he chants his intention to “get one more,” Desmond is reinforcing reality: God’s healing hands are his own healing hands. Ultra-traditional Rodrigues isn’t kneeling to a king out there. He’s making a postural promise to lay it all down: his rosary, his body, even his identity. Both of them can travel far from home because they live in rock-solid certainty that their compass point is not external. Raised and trained as men of prayer, they know that compass point the way you know how to breathe.
I envied them, those Godly Garf guys. So I do it, even when I feel self-conscious like yet another movie example of prayer, Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street: “I believe…I believe…it’s silly, but I believe.”
Here are some of the things on my own starter shelf dedicated to books on prayer:
Theologies and Investigations
Richard Rohr with John Bookser Feister, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount
James P. Danaher, Contemplative Prayer: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century
Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. (This is huge. I’m an Absolute Beginner on this one.)
Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation
Interesting Additional Stuff
Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (huh? but no, seriously, read it after any of the theologies above and you’ll see what I mean)